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They got along well enough over the phone, and each had been told that the other could rap. But when they met for the first time, they looked at each other and thought maybe this collaboration wasn't going to work. Toki Wright (a.k.a. Intel) was a wiry slam poet with dreadlocks. Adonis D. Frazier (a.k.a. Supaman AD) was a clean-cut super-middle-weight boxer known in the ring as Black Diamond. The MCs began recording together before they knew much about each other, introduced by a mutual friend and brought into the studio by producer Reggie "Reg" Henderson, who cut them on a party track.
Wright hated party tracks.
"I was more the commercial side, he was more the underground side," says Frazier. "But I liked what he was talking about in his lyrics. He made sense. So what if he's a backpack-wearing, oatmeal-eating cat?"
"Man, why you gotta bring that up?" says Wright, laughing. "I did not eat oatmeal. It was Nutri-Grain."
The rappers are sharing Krispy Kremes in the office of the Circle of Discipline boxing gym, a nonprofit Powderhorn community center founded more than a decade ago by Frazier's father, Sankara Frazier. It's been a couple of years since the son formed the C.O.R.E. with Wright, shortening the crew name from Children of Righteous Elevation. And the duo still resembles a buddy-movie team. But they're best friends now, "brothers," even roommates ("baby-mama drama," they explain).
"I grew up boxing," says Frazier. "I fought for every possible gym you could think of. We fought in alleys. We trained in parking lots. My father started the Circle of Discipline because there was so many youth out there that needed something to do, needed some kind of structure, and boxing was a way to grab their attention, turn all that negative energy into something positive. You have to do something physically to reach them mentally, and because of where we're at, fighting was the thing."
The Circle of Discipline is where the C.O.R.E. made their name in local hip hop, hosting concerts and teen parties and other events to benefit the gym. Some combined sport and music: Frazier fondly remembers KMOJ-FM's Q-Bear boxing with the C.O.R.E.'s manager, Laura Guyton, at one fundraiser. "They brought my man a McDonald's hamburger to feed him in between rounds," he says. "And at one point Laura had him in a clinch, and her girls ran in there and pulled Q-Bear's pants down."
Another time, Frazier's father broke up a beef between members of rival gangs by challenging them to get in the ring together. "He hit the lights and killed the music and said, 'If y'all are that bad, somebody hand me them gloves in there,'" says Frazier. "It was so funny because they couldn't even last three rounds. And they had to do it to save face, because there's women there."
"There's a lot of cool community stuff going on here, but it's hard," says Wright. "It's like we're all in here volunteering, doing this for free, but we all got our lives. We got kids. We have our own situations. We would still do teen dance parties, but there's no funding to keep the insurance paid.
"That's why we gotta make it," he adds. "Because we got people depending on us."
The C.O.R.E. are just two guys, really. But they insist that the name applies as much to Henderson and Guyton, as well as to Xavier "X-Man" Smith, an engineer for Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Smith and Henderson produced the group's debut album, Metropolis (3rd Eye Entertainment) which hits stores this week in conjunction with a release party on Friday at the Quest.
The extended family also includes Damon Dickson, a longtime choreographer for Prince, who coaches the rappers' stage show and makes them watch videos of their gigs. Then there are various stage DJs, as well as collaborators on countless hip-hop-related events, including last August's Twin Cities Celebration of Hip Hop festival at Intermedia Arts. To hear Frazier and Wright tell it, the C.O.R.E. are their own brand of community athletic center.
Yet for all the fortunes riding on the success of Metropolis, the album feels surprisingly free. Floating like the proverbial butterfly, it style-hops from the garage-ragga of "Let's Go" to the Mystikal shout-along of "Mosh Pit" (with the sobering chorus "Get up/Stand up/Put your/Hands up/You could/Be out/Side in/Handcuffs" ). "Slow It Down" lets R&B singer Larissa Rae honey-dip the chorus as Wright gets serious: "Eye for an eye blinding the blind into a brick wall/Pitfall/Brother got blasted on Broadway for bricks raw." (His poignant aside: "They left a hole in his head large enough to shove a book in.")
But the mood lightens on the West Coast bounce of "Slick Talk," which finds Frazier "slicker than Michael Jackson moon-walking downhill through a puddle of curl activator," and Wright "slicker than your sister licking a stick of licorice." (His hilarious aside: "My bubble gum got caught on her tongue ring.")
The MCs haven't quite found their personas on the mic yet, a fact made more obvious by vivid cameos from Slug and Muja Messiah. And for all their stylistic bravura, they seem self-conscious as well as "conscious." Among the few local hip-hoppers to find an audience among both "nerds" and "thugs," the C.O.R.E. worry too much about alienating either: When I ran into them at the Minnesota Music Awards last year, the MCs went so far as to ask that I not mention in print their most unique live feature: their dance moves. (Sorry, guys.)
But sometimes being different is as "street" as it gets. At the gym, they even poke fun at the no-dancing rule among contemporary MCs.
"It's like people are afraid to move their bodies or something," says Wright.
"And we're not trying to spit a bunch of big words that go above your head," adds Frazier. "We're trying to come through you. Make you feel the music."
In other words, do something physically to reach you mentally. For the C.O.R.E., dancing is just part of the fight.